Once a work of art is made available to the public, the artist’s original intent is fair game for others to interpret: people read meaning into poems, see their own lives in novels, or find patterns in paintings that weren’t consciously put there. In essence, they make the work their own. This type of reinterpretation happened to the literary web site Bookninja, where an audience, hungry for a new forum, helped reshape the format, content, and mission of the site, well beyond what its creators originally had in mind.
Live since August, 2003, the site’s overseers, the authors George Murray and Peter Darbyshire, originally meant for Bookninja to be little more than a listserv, where a handful of like-minded folk could discuss experimental fiction and poetry. Having struck up a friendship several years ago while living in Toronto, Murray and Darbyshire often found themselves discussing art and literature with their friends for hours over coffee or beer. When both ended up leaving town (Murray to Guelph, Ontario, via New York, Darbyshire to Ottawa, then Vancouver), they found themselves isolated from their literary community. Gone were the discussions, the arguments, the camaraderie. And so, Bookninja was born.
The site’s present incarnation (found at www.bookninja.com) contains several elements. The Hearsay section is a collection of links to interesting pieces of daily news, and includes an option for readers to discuss each piece. Another element is the regular cartoon strip Litterati, drawn by Murray, to which readers are sometimes invited to create their own caption. There is also an essay section and an area of miscellany.
The most considered content, however, is the “inverse omnibus review,” in which two or three writers share a back-and-forth discussion of a book. Tired of the mainstream-media book-review format, Darbyshire and Murray try to structure the discussions so the results capture the feeling of sitting around in a bar. Their only mandate, Darbyshire says, is “to pick books we really care about, not those that are necessarily new.”
These reviews are great fun: passionate, good-natured, sassy, educated, and, a rarity these days, long (a review of the recent reissue of Peter Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea clocks in at more than twenty-two hundred words). For people unused to following on-line discussion threads, these reviews are a good place to start dipping in. While they meander, they do so with a solid sense of direction, much like a really satisfying conversation. By contrast, the multi-contributor discussion threads are undirected, open to anyone who wants to jump in—that is, an editor isn’t facilitating the discussion. This lack of a facilitator has evolved into the site’s most-loved quality.
Darbyshire says the original plan was to keep an aesthetic, rather than national, approach to the site, and to include the option of discussions to supplement the main content. However, readers and contributors quickly made different use of the discussions. Says Murray: “I’m amazed at the number of people who visit the site—hundreds per day.” These people developed a distinctly Canadian voice to the site. While Bookninja is still not a CanLit site, the discussion threads “made us think more about the Canadian scene,” Darbyshire says. “Now we’re being sort of conscientious that we’re filling a need that wasn’t being filled. It was a surprise—I hadn’t realized there was a lack.”
So far, Darbyshire and Murray have covered all the costs associated with the site, though they may look at some funding options eventually. Which is not to say their labours are without reward. As Murray notes: “I enjoy going to a party and hearing people I don’t know talking about it, saying they read it every day.”